Complexions @ Joyce Chelsea & Foniadakis's Rite of Spring @ Joyce SoHo

(photo by Andrea Mohin, NYTimes, of Desmond Richardson and S. Epatha Merkerson, in “I Will Not Be Broken”)

Sorry, am very behind again on my review posts — so busy with all manner of stuff to get done before Thanksgiving! Anyway, both of these two programs — Complexions Contemporary Ballet at the Joyce’s Chelsea theater, and Andonis Foniadakis’s new version of “Rite of Spring” at its SoHo location — were both danced brilliantly — big huge kudos to all of the dancers, but especially to Ioanna Toumpakari (below, in photo I swiped from Oberon’s Grove), who did what appeared to be an extremely emotionally intense and physically vigorous 40-minute solo in “Rite.”

I didn’t feel as strongly about the choreography of either though.

Complexions (I saw program A; there is also a program B) included five pieces, my favorite of which by far was “I Will Not Be Broken,” choreographed by Dwight Rhoden and having its world premiere this season. This ballet is on both programs, by the way. It began with S. Epatha Merkerson (an actor on Law & Order) first speaking the words of a poem, then breaking out into song — a set of slavery spirituals. Desmond Richardson — who is amazing beyond belief — sat on a bench at the front of the stage, body contorted, hunched over, then arms moving quickly, waving something off, brushing off shackles — binds not only physical but mental — then fanning himself with quick flicks of the wrists, like cooling himself down from being taken by the spirit. He’d lift his feet flexed-footed, as if tense, very alive, a body occupied by another force — then kick out violently, fall to the ground, jump up into an amazing flexed-footed split, come up for air. More jumps, then he’d sit on the bench again, cover his eyes, cradle himself.

While he rested, another couple — a man and woman sitting on another bench — danced a duet. But I just found myself unable to wait for Richardson to catch his breath, start up again. I’m not even sure what each specific movement meant or was intended to evoke, but overall I got the sense of a man being lifted out of himself, out of his pain, to freedom, letting the spirit free him — which is of course what slavery spirituals were all about. He brought the words Merkerson spoke and sang vividly and compellingly to life, to say the least.

The rest of the program was so-so choreographically, though danced very well. “Ave Maria” was performed by a couple — Hiroko Sakakibara and Simon Sliva — who lifted and wrapped their limbs around each other lovingly and with beautiful intensity; “Rise”, a set of dances set to U2 music; “Routines” a piece that started out with a group of dancers warming up, then donning exaggerated Forsythian ballet costumes — the women in saucer-like tutus, the men in short skirts danced to a collage of industrial music (with clanking bells, train whistles, etc.); and “Constructs for 4” a nice lyrical piece for three men and one woman to soft violin music by Bach.

I guess my main issue with Rhoden’s choreography (aside from “Broken”) is that the dancing, while very rhythmic and musical, doesn’t really amount to a discernible theme or create a specific feeling. For example, the “Rise” music was great fun, it was like traveling through time, remembering all those U2 songs from when I was in college. But the songs are all about something and that’s their genius — the sentiment they convey, not just that they’re danceable. For example, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is in part about race relations and our society’s continual failure to achieve social justice. I didn’t see anything evoking that here — bodies moving rhythmically – jumping happily, skipping, running, doing brilliantly high battemants — but nothing that made the song’s lyrics, its spiritual rhythm, come alive. And it was that way with the rest as well — not only the piece danced to U2 songs, but Ave Maria, the one danced to the violins (though this one was choreographed by Igal Perry) — yes, the lifts were lovely, but neither created an atmosphere for me or told a story or made me really feel anything. Still, I have to say, Complexions is worth seeing for “Broken” alone. And for the dancers and their sculpted muscularity — some are quite built — and which they somehow spectacularly combine with hyper flexibility and an air of feathery lightness. And the other dances are fun — the music is great, and the dancing is rhythmic, just not evocative enough or emotionally all there to me.

And same with the Foniadakis. Actually, I was going to wait until I had some time to do research on the history of “Rite of Spring,” and watch some of the other versions (there are many!) but then my post wouldn’t go up until the run is long over. I know the original Stravinsky music and Nijinsky dance involve violence, sexuality, fertility rites, and depictions of young girls dancing themselves to death. And I know many versions — like that by Pina Bausch, and the Joffrey — are danced by an ensemble. This was danced by one woman — the seemingly indefatigable Toumpakari. She was dressed only in a tribal thong, a grassy-looking fabric lining the waist, with paint marks on her forearms, calves and forehead.

Before the music began, she walked around stage, with kind of a prancing limp, as if performing a tribal custom. When the Stravinksy began, she seemed on the verge of a sexual awakening, her hip-jutting, pelvis-rolling movements and facial expressions very sexually suggestive. Then, she began performing more of an African dance, throwing her arms and shoulder over her waist, kicking out with flexed feet. She began fighting an imaginary person, lashing out, scratching, growling at him. This was followed by more frenzied movement, until she worked herself up so she nearly collapsed. She fell to the floor, slowly rose, bent over deeply from the waist, looked at her hands, horrified — they appeared to be turning into claws before her eyes, she couldn’t control the fingers. Finally, she gained control over her body and began the African-like movement again, running around stage with the limp, starting the process anew. Each phase seemed to repeat several times until, finally, at the end, out of breath, she slowly looked over to the side of the room, where her street clothes lay, walked over very slowly and calmly, and changed from costume into jeans and white t.

I feel like I’d need to do more research on the dance history to form a better judgment of the choreography, but I was highly impressed by Toumpakari.

For other perspectives, here is Roslyn Sulcas and here Christopher Atamian on Complexions; here is Claudia La Rocco and here and here Oberon on Foniadakis.

Complexions shows through November 30; “Rite of Spring” through this Sunday.

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